The term “madrasa” derives from an Arabic verb meaning “to learn” or “to study.” In modern Arabic, madrasa means simply “school,” although in Muslim communities throughout the world, it has recently been used to indicate institutions often established and run by revivalist and politicized organizations and offering a religious curriculum distinct from and in competition with those associated with government schools. In classical usage, however, The term “madrasa” had a more precise meaning, indicating schools devoted to instruction in the Islamic religious sciences, especially fiqh, or Islamic law.
The madrasa was a specifically Islamic institution and had no direct relationship with pre- Islamic religious or educational establishments in the Middle East (although one theory has suggested that the earliest madrasas in Khurasan and Central Asia may have been modeled on the Buddhist vihara [monastery]). Consequently, the madrasa was a product of, rather than a contributor to, the fully formed Islamic tradition.
Two developments in particular were preconditions to the appearance of the madrasa. The first was the emergence of the ‘ulama’, the self- conscious community of scholars devoted both personally and, in some sense, professionally to the transmission of the Islamic religious sciences. Like Judaism, Islam is a religion of the book and of learning, and the ‘ulama’ function within Islam in a manner not dissimilar to that of the Jewish rabbis. Religious knowledge in Islam is known as ‘ilm and consists of interlocking discursive traditions preserving and interpreting the scriptural foundations of the faith, specifically the Qur’an and the hadith (accounts of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions). The emergence of the ‘ulama’ and of the intellectual traditions that lie at the root of their identity have not yet been systematically traced but had begun to develop by the end of the seventh century at the latest. By the ninth century, those traditions were firmly in place, and the ‘ulama’ had emerged as a prominent social group. The second development was the coalescence of the principal schools (madhāhib, sing. madhhab) of Sunni law between the eighth and tenth centuries— “school” here designating a community of intellectual discourse rather than an institution. With this development, law emerged as the most important of the Islamic religious sciences.
The premadrasa history of Islamic education has not yet been fully documented. Preliminary study of the Qur’an and the Arabic language took place either in the home or in primary schools (maktab, kuttab). At more advanced levels, instruction generally occurred in mosques, where scholars sat with their students for lectures, directed reading, and structured discussions and disputations of academic questions. In some mosques, particularly larger and more prominent ones and especially in Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic empire from the mid- eighth century, scholars might receive formal teaching appointments from the caliphs. Individual mosques might also benefit from endowments established by individuals as acts of charity, the income from which might be used to support instruction and learning. But absent a formal structure of educational institutions, the transmission of religious knowledge remained a fundamentally informal affair, regulated by personal relationships between teachers and pupils and networks of scholars in the various religious disciplines. That personal and informal character remained a hallmark of Islamic religious and legal education even after the advent of the madrasa.
The madrasa as a distinctive institution, supported by endowments and devoted to instruction in Islamic law, first appeared in Khurasan in the tenth century. During the following centuries, the madrasa spread westward into Iran, Iraq, and Syria and became one of the most common institutions in the cities of the medieval Islamic world. Many madrasas, and virtually all the largest and most famous, were built and endowed by sultans or other leading political figures. Nizam al- Mulk (d. 1092), for example, the vizier to several Seljuq sultans, established madrasas that bore his name in Nishapur and other cities, including the particularly large Nizamiyya Madrasa in Baghdad, which was completed in 1067. Sultans Nur al- Din b. Zangi (d. 1174) and Salah al- Din Yusuf al- Ayyubi (Saladin, d. 1193) subsequently constructed many madrasas in the territories under their control as a part of their campaign to revitalize the Sunni world in the face of threats from militant Shi’ism and European Crusaders. Under the Mamluks, who ruled over Egypt and Syria from the mid- 13th to the early 16th century, the spread of madrasas continued. By the 15th century, for example, the city of Cairo had more than 100 such institutions. Timur Lang (commonly known as Tamerlane; d. 1405) and his successors in Central Asia, the Ottomans in Anatolia and the Balkans, and the various Muslim dynasties that ruled over North India from the 13th century on also built and endowed madrasas to support instruction in the Islamic religious sciences.